Photographs and essays by Brian Skerry. Additional essays by Erik Vance and Glenn Hodges.
Published by National Geographic, Washington, D.C. 208 pages. $25
The movie “Jaws” may well have contributed to the undoing of the shark. Fearsome creatures like sharks, wolves and grizzlies don’t fare well on this planet. One hundred million sharks are killed every year, the majority for their fins for shark fin soup. Also included in that number are the thousands of sharks killed in shark fishing tournaments and by sports fishermen. These big fish would have more advocates if they were adorable. And then, there’s Stephen Spielberg, whose movie-making genius scared many a swimmer out of the surf.
National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry’s mission is to improve upon the shark’s likability quotient using his magnificent photography and a related series of informative and compelling essays in his new book, “Shark.”
“My hope is that I can portray sharks in a new light, to show them as complex animals possessing characteristics that arouse marvel rather than contempt,” he writes. “My desire is that the photos contained within this book will remain within your memory and help to form a
more layered understanding of these ancient and supreme ocean animals.” Of the 500 species of sharks, 70 species are threatened with extinction and many others are endangered. “The future of sharks is in our hands.”
Skerry is a photojournalist who specializes in marine photography and underwater environments. He lives in Massachusetts and saw his first shark underwater off the coast of Rhode Island when he was 20. It was a blue shark — sleek and blue and hydrodynamic, with wide pectoral fins that allow it to glide with speed and power through deep seas. He was hooked and has been photographing sharks of all kinds, often at the very close range of 3 to 6 feet, for more than three decades. Unlike terrestrial photography, underwater photographers juggle many unique constraints including limited oxygen, penetrating cold and equipment that must be tended to above water. And there are risks when eye to eye with predators like great white sharks. Though divers know that sharks are not as interested in them as their natural prey, divers must practice extreme caution at all times.
Eons of evolution, says Skerry, have produced the “fluid perfection” of the shark. That gorgeous fluidity fills the pages of this handsome book. But, to fully understand the importance of the shark, you must see it in a much wider context. Sharks are one element in a balance of nature
where flora and fauna are “inexorably entwined.” Remove one piece and the system breaks down. When Skerry photographs, he often moves back from the dramatic detail to the wide, encompassing view that brings in kelp beds or coral reefs, other fish — prey and predator alike — and sunlight as it appears from his vantage point underwater. The shark’s world is large and complex.
Skerry once spent days on his back, submerged in the shallow waters of mangrove forests in Bimini, Bahamas. He was photographing lemon shark pups that live amid the protection of the tangled root systems until they are two years old and big enough to fend in the abutting seas.
The photography reveals a fantastical secret world colored multiple shades of muted green, rippled underwater reflections, a bevy of smaller fish and mangrove roots staked out at short intervals, oddly reminiscent of a toddler’s crib. Here a lemon shark can mature in relative safety.
Erik Vance’s essay on the great white shark is a pleasure to read, especially his description of the great white’s profile — flabby jowled and rather portly. “It’s only when the underwater clown turns to face you that you understand why it’s the most feared animal on earth,” he writes. “The bemused smile is gone, and all you see are rows of two-inch teeth capable of crunching down with almost two tons of force.” All the essayists writing here describe sharks as confident, powerful and capable. They are “lords of the seas,” elegant, fierce and at home in their ocean world. We see their vulnerability, as well, when they are pictured ensnared in fishing nets, askew on the sands as their fins are harvested, and as cause for celebration duringa shark fishing tournament where the only goal is to capture and kill.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at email@example.com.